Lynn Steinmetz reflects on her ‘romp in the park’ in ‘Arms and the Man’ at Washington Stage Guild

The veteran DC actor talks about playing the wickedly funny matriarch in George Bernard Shaw’s classic anti-war comedy.

Comedies about war are few and far between. There’s Lysistrata, back in 411 BCE. Mash, in 1972 CE. And George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man in 1894.

The latter—deemed the wittiest of all of Shaw’s plays—has had countless revivals and is as funny (and pointed) today as it was 129 years ago.

Set in 1885, during the Serbo-Bulgarian War, it illustrates the folly of war and reveals the hypocrisy that lurks beneath the bullets and swords.

Lynn Steinmetz as Catherine Petkoff in ‘Arms and the Man.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

In fact, as veteran actor and force majeure of DC theater Lynn Steinmetz pointed out to me in a recent interview on Zoom, “It’s a very funny play. I’d forgotten just how funny it is!”

Now delivering a star turn in Arms and the Man at Washington Stage Guild, Steinmetz described the last time she performed in the play.

“It was 1992,” she reminisced, “and the part I played was Louka, the saucy maid.”

Lynn Steinmetz as Louka and TJ Edwards as Sergius in Washington Stage Guild’s 1992 production of ‘Arms and the Man.’ Photo courtesy of Washington Stage Guild.

This time around she is Catherine, the pompous but practical mother of the romantic Raina, whose bedroom is invaded one night by a Serbian soldier who carries chocolates instead of bullets in his ammunition pouch.

Catherine, whose crusty exterior is quickly melted, devises a plan allowing the soldier to escape. Scandal, unsurprisingly, ensues.

The switch in roles—from ingenue to tough broad—is similar to the one that occurred two seasons ago when director Michael Rothhaar cast Steinmetz in another of Shaw’s plays, Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Originally the idealistic, but hypocritical, daughter, she wound up later as Mrs. Warren herself.

“Catherine, in Arms and the Man, is a gorgeous role,” Steinmetz said as we settled into the interview on a dark rainy day. “Playing her is a romp in the park.”

Unlike Mrs. Warren, Catherine is comic relief. She’s big, bold, and silly. Pushy, too. As Catherine, Steinmetz sails onto the set like a dowager queen, outfitted in a gold and maroon brocade gown. She is, by turns, coquettish and petulant, pompous and silly, boastful and boorish, regal but gleefully childish.

“However, she also appears to have a weakness for anyone in uniform,” Steimetz said, adding that this is a quality that she has injected into the role, since it’s not really confirmed in the text.

Thomas Daniels as Sergius and Lynn Steinmetz as Catherine in ‘Arms and the Man.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

“Catherine loves war,” she added. “And that, in the Shavian cannon, is what makes it a joke. Shaw is saying that war is silly. And that’s why Arms and the Man is a powerful anti-war play.”

The message, however, is indirect. Shaw, while known as a polemicist, is not polemical here.

“He’s saying that all war is futile, but he wants people to think about it and arrive at their own conclusions. He’s asking, ‘Does war solve anything?’ The answer, sadly, is ‘no.’ Which makes the play as relevant today as it was a century ago.

“Right now,” she added, “we have wars all over, in the Middle East, Ukraine, and Sudan. Will anything be solved? Can anything be worth the cost in lives?”

Although Shaw’s plays have largely disappeared from the American stage, his opus—once considered the equal of Shakespeare’s—remains a staple at Washington Stage Guild, which has produced a GBS play nearly every year since 1986.

I asked Steinmetz, who was one of the founding members that year and today is the executive director, what dictated the choice.

“The audience loved it,” she laughed, explaining that the company, in its first year, was astonished to find that when a play by Shaw was announced, theatergoers literally “came out of the woodwork and filled the house.”

The company was amazed, but—faced with a literary and intellectual crowd-pleaser—decided to adopt Shaw as one of its flagship playwrights.

“We discovered that even though Shaw is rarely done in the U.S. nowadays, his work is still relevant. It certainly appeals to the Guild audience,” she added, pointing out that his women’s roles are especially interesting.

I asked Steinmetz how the Guild—which is famous for its gifted performers and meticulously crafted productions of often neglected works—came to be.

“We all came out of Catholic University in the 1970s,” she said. “Those were the glory years for students. Wonderful artists performed, directed, or taught there. It was a chance for students to do real theater.”

In order to continue working together, a group of alums got together to create a professional ensemble theater. In addition to Steinmetz, other founding members include Laura Giannarelli, Bill Largess, and John Lescault, to name a few.

“Washington is a wonderful theater city,” said Steinmetz, who has performed, over the years, with Woolly Mammoth, Everyman, and Arena. “One reason is an abundance of theater-related work, either through the government or politics.”

For Steinmetz, the “day job” was in politics.

“While I was at CU, I found a notice of a job opening at Hart Research, a political firm. I applied for the job and was promptly hired.” She stayed there for 40 years.

Now retired, she attributes her success on the DC stage to the firm’s flexibility over hours. “They also allowed me to work remotely, which is critical if you’re doing eight shows a week!” she added.

“But on top of that, I loved the work itself. I find politics, like theater, fascinating.”

Back to Arms and the Man: “It’s a very funny play,” she said. “With Shaw, there’s no need to prep the role. It’s all there, on the page.”

In fact, she concluded, “The only prep you need for Shaw is 40 or 50 years of learning to speak quickly and clearly.”

And a clear instinct for comedy, which is what this fine actor—like the rest of the cast—has.

(Click here for Bob Ashby’s delightful review of Arms and the Man at Washington Stage Guiid earlier this week. Click here for Deb Miller’s review of the New York production, which had a brief but glorious run last week. And click here for my 2022 review of the Guild’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, with Lynn Steinmetz as Mrs. Warren.)

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including two intermissions.

Arms and the Man plays through December 10, 2023, presented by Washington Stage Guild performing in The Undercroft Theatre at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Prices are $50 for Thursday evening performances and Saturday and Sunday matinees, and $60 for Saturday and Sunday evenings. Students are half-price, and seniors over 65 get a $10 discount. Tickets can be purchased online.

COVID Safety: Masks are strongly recommended (not required). Washington Stage Guild’s complete Health and Safety Policy is here.

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw

Em Whitworth: Raina Petkoff
Thomas Daniels: Sergius Saranoff
Zack Powell: Captain Bluntschli
Lynn Steinmetz: Catherine
Matty Griffiths: Paul Petkoff
Diana Afriye-Opoku: Louka
Nick DePinto: Nicola

Michael Rothhaar: Director
Cole Harriston: Assistant Director
Joseph B. Musumeci Jr.: Set Designer
Cheryl Yancy: Costumes


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